Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (10:33):  I am a little bit confused as to why I am speaking before the chairman of a committee, but I take that as a great honour and a privilege and I thank the chamber for the opportunity.

In my opening remarks I would like to acknowledge the member for Grey, the chairman of the committee, and the member for Hotham, in her absence in this chamber, the deputy chair of the committee, and all members who put in an extraordinarily large amount of work on this inquiry.

It is a very important inquiry and one which, of course, has attracted a little bit more attention than we might otherwise have expected, given recent food safety concerns—particularly the well-publicised China berries incident and the potential link to a hepatitis A outbreak.

We heard from many witnesses who expressed many different views, which again highlights the complexity of this issue. To the consumer it all seems very simple: 'Just tell us simply, in a graphic way if possible, where this food is coming from.' But of course those of us who have had the opportunity and the privileges granted to us in this place know that it is far more complex than that.

I think the example was used, throughout the work of the committee, of blueberries being brought into Australia from, say, China and those blueberries being used to manufacture a pie in Australia. In that case it is a good thing for Australian companies to be able to say that pie was, at least in part, manufactured in Australia—because people are looking for an opportunity to back Australian products.

But it is complex putting that case into a label. How much was done in Australia? Was it 49 per cent or 51 per cent or whatever?

Consumers would have different views, generally, about whether it should be 49, 50, 51 per cent or whatever. That is understandable and justifiable. But trying to put all those complexities into a label—a simple label that gives a one-glance snapshot of what was done locally and what was done somewhere else—is very difficult.

The committee was mindful of the need to ensure that Australian manufacturers—those who are transforming imported fruit, vegetables or whatever into an Australian final-use product—do not have their business prospects undermined by denying them the opportunity to indicate that it is a product made in Australia. This is very difficult.

I believe the committee made some very sensible recommendations. I originally intended to read them into the record, but I think that will probably be done by the chairman or someone else, so I will not use my time doing so. But I think the recommendations were sensible and get the balance pretty right.

They are not perfect, not by any stretch. We were not able to find the perfect solutions, but we did our very best to put forward something which is better than what is currently in place. Hopefully that will give consumers better guidance about where the product they are consuming is coming from.

The complexities of fresh and frozen foods that come through New Zealand from places like China and how we deal with those under FSANZ and within our close economic relationship with China—these are things which make the issues here more complex yet again.

But it is not all about food labelling. We really need to be careful, in responding to the Chinese berries outbreak for example, about responding with a labelling response only. I understand that consumers think this is a labelling issue.

It is in part. But the systems we have in place to ensure that the food we are importing from other nation-states meets the same standards we would expect here in Australia are every bit as important—I would say more important—than what we put on labels. Going back to the Chinese berries incident, the goods were clearly marked 'Produce of China'.

It was not up there in flashing lights, I admit, but it was pretty clear to anyone who takes a look at labels—and of course not all consumers take a look at labels. I am now looking at them more diligently myself than I was before the Chinese berries incident. But it was clearly marked 'Produce of China'.

We have to be careful not to give consumers, the Australian electorate, the impression we can fix this problem with a labelling solution alone. We cannot. We have to do something on labelling, but we also need to ensure that we have the very best biosecurity system in the world.

The testing systems, the verification systems, we rely upon to test things like China-produced berries before they come to this country and when they arrive in this country must also be the very best in the world.

That takes me to a subject very close to my heart—the position of the Inspector-General of Biosecurity. The inspector-general is the last cop on the beat. He is the guy who sits in the Department of Agriculture, in biosecurity—which was previously called quarantine—and ensures that all of our systems are working.

He is independent of the government and he can decide, based on any source, to initiate an inquiry into any part of the biosecurity process if he has concerns that the system has the potential to break down or is indeed breaking down. As I speak, the government for some reason is bringing on the Biosecurity Bill in the Senate.

I do not know why it is rushing it now or why it is suddenly bringing it on now. I think a quorum was just called there as a response to that surprise. But I am calling upon the government again today, and I will be having Labor senators move amendments in the Senate sometime soon, to restore the powers, the independence and tenure of the Inspector-General of Biosecurity.

Why would the government undermine this position?

It just makes no sense to me. I am appealing to government members to talk to the agriculture minister and say, 'Just fix this thing.'

If this bill passes in its current form, Barnaby Joyce, the Minister for Agriculture, becomes, in effect, the Inspector-General of Biosecurity. Is the broader community going to feel comfortable with that prospect? If there is a breakdown in biosecurity in the department, people are going to rely upon the minister to decide whether we should have an investigation into the breakdown!

Any minister would be concerned about an inquiry that might just show that somehow they, as minister, might have failed in some way which caused the breakdown. So you cannot have the minister deciding these things. We need an independent statutory officer looking at these things through the eyes of an independent player, with the power to determine what things are looked at and what are not.

On another issue, we heard revelations today on ABC radio that the government has abolished the National Produce Monitoring System. That is a system the Labor government put in place in cooperation with the states through the COAG process, specifically through the Standing Council on Primary Industries—which the government abolished too. SCoPI has gone.

There is no format for the Commonwealth and state ministers to get together on these very important issues anymore. They are very important issues. SCoPI identified gaps. We have all these state based systems looking at chemical residues in our fresh produce. We go to the market gardens on a Sunday and we are buying produce. They are great market gardens.

We have the best system in the world. But SCoPI identified gaps, because all states are doing things differently. SCoPI decided that we should spend some money on a pilot project over five years to collect the data we need to determine whether these gaps really matter and whether there is a food safety threat to consumers. So we could rely on the science.

We could gather the data and ensure that we have the world's best food safety program. But, a year in, the government has abolished the scheme. The government has abolished the scheme at the very time when Australian consumers are, because of the China berry incident, concerned about food safety and what they are consuming.

Chemicals are important; our farmers must have them. But consumers are entitled to know that the system is not letting them down and the chemical residues in the food they are buying at the market are not so high as to pose a threat to their health and safety. I call upon the government to rethink this very silly idea.

Barnaby Joyce, the minister, described it as a savings measure. I would have thought the last place the government would go for a savings measure is to food safety in this current political environment. This is a mistake. The inspector-general needs to be restored with all of his powers and independence.

The government must do something to redress this very bad decision.



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  • Bill Wilson
    commented 2015-03-18 19:42:56 +1100
    Let the private sector do what the Government cant or wont do. Here is a logo that is an Australian Authenticity Logo and Truth in Labelling. The Buy Australian Logo.
    Stop the whiteanting of Australian producers and manufacturers by the Australian Made hobby horse. Or should that be trojan horse?